Ahhh, Idaho. I had never laid eyes on your gorgeous mountains and broad plains, but I’ve eaten plenty of your famous potatoes which is how I ended up gazing upon this breathtaking vista. Wine in hand and a spread of the most exquisite appetizers imaginable behind me far exceeded my expectations of any trip to your fair state.
Having worked with the Idaho Potato Commission developing recipes featuring Idaho potatoes in five vegetarian main dishes, I accepted their invitation to learn firsthand, straight from the farmers, about the growing, harvesting, and processing of this beloved staple of America’s diet.
I arrived in Idaho Falls mid afternoon and ran into Amy Sherman of Cooking with Amy at the baggage claim area. The rest of the group were waiting for us at the hotel so we could take off to the Idaho Potato Museum in Blackfoot. We ditched or bags at the front desk and piled into the van for the first of a whirlwind of events revolving around the humble spud.
Full of interesting history about how the potato species came to America. Learn about early artifacts used in rituals to the Potato God and who invented the ubiquitous Idaho russet potato: Luther Burbank. Hear the story about how using Marilyn Monroe’s image created a stir in the potato industry in the 50s. And, of course, see the rudimentary equipment used to sow and harvest potatoes before the machine age and a colorful collection of potato mashers from days gone by.
From the museum we drove by miles and miles of fields to the farm of James Hoff, a 4th generation Idaho potato farmer. We met the whole family, including their four-legged family members, and began our potato education in a storage building which James’ grandfather built.
The Hoff family and Idahoan Foods graciously hosted us for a dinner in the Hoff family airplane hangar. Yes, besides potato farmers, they are the local airplane experts and have accumulated a cool collection of vintage prop planes that are still in use. In fact, James’ 14-year old daughter is learning to fly in the gorgeous crimson and steel plane shown above from the same teacher that taught James and his father how to fly – he’s 92 years old and contemplating retirement.
James’ parents, Jane and Bob, grilled up a mess of chicken and tri-tip accompanied by all manner of potatoes: bakers, mashed, salads, and gratins with wine and a selection of Idaho Brewing Company growlers.
After dinner, James entertained us by demonstrating how to achieve the fluffiest baked potato – a technique that a few prime steak houses need to learn. Note: it’s not in the baking, but in how you treat that earthly delight after it’s fork tender. If this was the only thing I took away from my journey to the potato kingdom, the trip would be well worth it. First you gently knead your potato to break up the flesh inside, then, using a fork – never a knife (it only serves to compact the flesh and all that yummy butter and sour cream just slide off rather than soaking in) – cut a zig-zag pattern in the skin and squish the potato ends to open the potato as if it were a blooming flower.
Watch James’ technique:
Video courtesy of corporate chef Adam Moore who joined us on this tour.
Next week, I’ll be sharing 20 amazing ways to serve potatoes and the absolutely stunning end to our journey.